The State Fair fine arts—much fat, little meat

The fine arts exhibition at the Minnesota State Fair has an, er, colorful history  that goes back to 1878, or almost exactly 130 years longer than cheese curds last in your hand. In fact, it says as much about the fair as Minnesotans that the first place we apparently thought to publicly exhibit art in this state was not in a gallery somewhere but at the fair–residents complained, in fact, that the 19-year-old fair didn’t host a fine-arts exhibit. (Of course, it’d been held in uppity Minneapolis that year.) Imagine one of the guys in an “Official Tick Checker” T-shirt at the fair today lodging that complaint.

It says much about the exhibition that competition to get in has been extremely high over the decades. The exhibits down at the Creative Activities building are ripe for a Waiting For Guffman-style parody (quilting, fine; but I’m sorry, scrapbooking or collecting bottle caps is not a creative activity, it’s filing). But the fine arts exhibition has long attracted professional artists throughout Minnesota—and many of them don’t get in. Last year’s show, including its shocking lead photograph of a girl bitten the day before by her dog, was impressive in its quality and breadth from nostalgia to edgy. So how to explain what happened this year?

The bright spots were few and far between–the sculpture spelling out the word “honesty” with rolled-up real dollar bills is clever, the Alec Soth-like photo of an old pink motel, by Jeff Baker, is striking. The sculptures are also trying hard, though the spilled bucket of doll parts smacks of the worst stuff the Walker Art Center has ever displayed, trying to be shocking ends up schlocky. The strongest impression one comes away with is that folk-art is alive and well in Minnesota; trouble is, much of this probably wasn’t intended that way.

It’s tempting to blame the jurors, though their credentials are impeccable: for instance, Olga Viso, the new head of the Walker, curated sculpture; Wendell Arneson, a St. Olaf arts professor juried watercolors; Lin Nelson-Mayson, head of the U’s Goldstein Gallery juried textiles and fabrics; and Christian A. Peterson, acting head of the photography department at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, juried photography. I was a bit alarmed reading that Viso had hoped that more of a Minnesota aesthetic, whatever that may be, would have emerged from the submissions. As interesting as having a regional style might be, I’m a little scared of what sort of provincialism Viso expected. Subject-wise, that’s pretty much what we ended up with anyway: plenty of images of the St. Paul Cathedral, local nature, and other area scenes. Not that it isn’t pleasing to have our landscape depicted for us, particularly at the fair, but whether it was in the submissions or the judging, the skewing toward local subjects began to feel more than a little patronizing.

Alternatively, you could blame the slight fall-off in submissions–though 1,979 pieces were submitted (and only 386 chosen) that’s down nearly 300 from 2007. Perhaps the competition is holding some artists back. In any case, if you find yourself unsatisfied, the only way to judge for yourself whether to blame it on the quality of submissions or judging is to check out the so-called Salon 300 running this week at the Hopkins Center for the Arts, a show of art not accepted into the State Fair competition and see which exhibition you prefer.